Yesterday I received a single sentence in a message that changed the world of Oklahoma Art forever: “He’s gone.” Murv Jacob, the prolific painter and Old Master of the Tahlequah North End was gone. It is time now for us to say, “Farewell, Old Bean”. He left behind a treasure trove of fantastic stories about his time with the Beat poets, the Grateful Dead, Haight-Ashbury and so much more. It is a comfort after his departure to exchange these stories with each other one more time. Another great comfort is to gaze upon the wondrous works with which he left us. As a storyteller myself, I wish to leave a record of my own personal stories with Murv.
Most of my first novel was complete when I left law practice in 2011 to pursue a writing career. I felt confident in the book but one detail occupied my mind. What would I do about the cover? I considered artists from all over the state and even asked for online book cover submissions. Nothing was a perfect fit. To paraphrase the Supreme Court, I felt like ‘I would know it when I saw it’ and I trusted that conviction. After months of searching and exasperation I feared I may have to settle for something less than spectacular if I ever wanted to publish my book. My sister Stacey encouraged me to stop by an artist’s gallery in Tahlequah. Murv had already been famous for years by then but somehow I’d never heard of him. I must have been the only person in eastern Oklahoma who didn’t know of this legendary painter and his work.
My sisters insisted on visiting the Jacob Gallery. We walked in and I was immediately taken by the magic feel of the place. Scores of magnificent works of art adorned every inch of space. Crystals lined the window ledge. Bob Dylan was spinning on a dusty, old-school C.D. player. There, sitting before the canvas with his palette and brush, barefoot and wearing a pair of frayed, cut-off jean shorts was the man who would paint my book into life: Murv Jacob. He started asking questions. If you know Murv then you know that he directed the conversation. You did well just to sit back and hope your brain kept up. He asked me to describe my book to him in just one word. A book in one word!! Finally, I blurted out, “EERIE!” His countenance brightened and he proclaimed in his gruff manner, “Eerie?? Oh, i can do eerie. My middle name is Eerie. I was born on the BANKS of Lake Eerie.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. He said we could choose from any of his magnificent works for the cover art. I was floored by the generosity and began to peruse his paintings. But my sister Stacey wasn’t satisfied. She is notorious for being much more forward than I. She told Murv we wanted him to paint a commissioned original work for the book cover. He asked if we were able to pay for such a thing. My baby sister, Melissa, said, “I can go get a hundred dollars.” The room shook with Murv’s hearty laugh. “No, no,” he said, “I’ll do it for free.” We were so naive and didn’t understand until later that his original work sold for thousands of dollars. I described an outline of the book for him and mentioned the spooklight and a couple of owls that were central to the novel.
When I went back several weeks later he was sitting in his space with an anatomy book of owls laid out at his feet. He had already begun the spectacular night sky, which featured a Native interpretation of Orion and various constellations. A mysterious light floated in the water at the bottom of the work and below that sat two glorious and EERIE owls. I cried when I saw it. My body was covered in chills. Murv had mystically intuited and painted my vision.
One of the many comments I’ve read about Murv in the last 24 hours is that he was intimidating. Some people admitted they were a little scared of him. It is true that to enter that gallery meant you were about to have your beliefs challenged. You would need a constitution able to withstand a fierce grilling. You couldn’t be easily offended by ideas that didn’t match your own. Most of all you had to be able to withstand being made to feel uncomfortable. Murv didn’t care about making people comfortable. He cared about challenging the power structure, societal norms and the status quo. The greatest artists of our time make us feel uncomfortable. That is the place where where growth and creation come from. Nothing comes from stasis. Murv was a master agitator and perhaps that explains his prolific output. It is one of the many reasons why I loved him so much. He was so bold. He also had a side, especially when it came to his children, grandchildren and his beloved Debbie Duvall, that was so tender and nurturing. He championed women. I don’t believe he could have painted the beauty and delicacy of our world as he did without an in-depth understanding of the feminine perspective.
One of my favorite Murv Jacob stories involves this picture from Ethiopia. My buddy and colleague Scotty Batie was in Ethiopia doing work for the Oklahoma-based non-profit Rise Up, Inc. when he spotted this unmistakable style. It was a Murv Jacob original t-shirt worn by a villager. When Scotty posted the photo someone commented, “Oh, that must have been left over there by Faith Phillips,” presumably because I had been to Africa for a couple of years before the photo was taken. But no, I hadn’t brought any Murv shirts to Africa during my time there – though I wish I could have taken credit. It is best that we never know how that piece of Tahlequah Native vibe made it all the way across the great ocean to the far side of a massive continent. Great beauty is found in The Mystery.
Within two months I’ve lost the two men most responsible for my unlikely entry into the Oklahoma Arts: Steve Ripley and Murv Jacob. I know that I am just one of thousands they fostered. I never visited Steve or Murv that I didn’t find them working with some new up and comer. Steve and Murv reminded us with their legendary tales that it is cool to be an Okie – a sentiment that had begun to fade from our collective consciousness. They heralded a revival of literary, musical and artistic creativity that continues to grow even today. They paved the way for young Okie artists to pick up and run with the rich artistic heritage that permeates genuine Oklahoma culture. That kind of generosity is invaluable to an aspiring artist. They shared their joy with us. Now it is our responsibility to keep giving that joy away by fostering other aspiring artists. Keep the dream alive. I promise, in honor of my beloved friends Murv and Steve, to do my part.
Murv insisted over and over again that I needed to read Jason and the Argonauts. He said there was some deep meaning I needed to find in that particular piece of literature. I never got around to it but now I think I will head to the library.
The last words Murv said to me were, “You are a dumpling.” It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. It describes very simply the great affection we felt for one another.
Signing off ’til the arrival of Spring. With love from Your Dumpling.